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Dhaka Tribune

Revelations from the elections

What now for candidates beyond the ruling party?

Update : 16 Jan 2024, 09:49 AM

On January 7, the 12th parliamentary election unfolded smoothly with a voter turnout of around 41%. Even amidst all the speculations about the election, the people of Bangladesh showcased their dedication to voting and supporting democratic values despite many challenges, like interference from opposition political parties, hartals, blockades, and arson attacks that led to casualties and caused distress for many.

The election outcome was a resounding triumph for the Awami League, having secured 222 seats. About 62 independent candidates, primarily aligned with the AL, emerged victorious, which established them as the second-largest group. 

This electoral verdict conveys a potent message to politicians on multiple fronts. It underscores a shift in voter priorities, as 55 members of the outgoing parliament, including some ministers, failed to secure re-election. Even prominent candidates within the 14-party alliance experienced defeat, indicating that voters are increasingly discerning candidates based on performance rather than party affiliation or position. The inability of incumbent MPs and ministers to clinch victory in this electoral battle is a compelling message to future politicians, emphasizing the importance of public scrutiny and performance evaluation in the democratic process.


Independent triumphs and AL factions

A notable aspect of the election outcome is the success of the independent candidates. This marks the first instance in the history of Bangladesh's parliamentary elections where such a substantial number of candidates secured victory without the backing of major political parties' symbols. Although critics may contend that most successful independent candidates had ties to the ruling party, the sheer magnitude of their victories is noteworthy.

The absence of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) from the election prompted the ruling party's central leadership to permit independent candidates to participate, aiming to ensure voter engagement with the expectation that any victorious candidate would align with their objectives. It's worth considering that the cumulative influence of these independent candidates could potentially rival that of opposition parties, given that the Jatiya Party, for example, only secured 11 seats.

Numerous seats witnessed fierce competition, with incumbent ministers and MPs facing formidable challenges, indicating that independent candidates garnered higher popularity than established MPs and ministers. The question that naturally arises is, why did this phenomenon occur?

The ruling party's persistent internal politics, marked by factionalism, has splintered AL supporters into various factions. Over the last 15 years, a subset of MPs executed strategies to establish MP leagues at the local level, aiming to bolster their syndicate. This manoeuvre sidelined dedicated leaders and supporters, keeping them detached from the mainstream political processes. 

Conversely, the ruling party has grown wary of the party-centric local government elections. Allegations have surfaced that MPs, in the past, engaged in selling nominations to infiltrators for financial gain, undermining committed party leaders. This persistent trend of fragmentation has significantly influenced the election outcome.


Jatiya Party’s game plan

Another facet of the election reveals the diminishing influence of the Jatiya Party, creating challenges for it to maintain its standing as the opposition party. According to parliamentary protocols, the status of the opposition is typically conferred upon the second-largest party or group. Had independent candidates formed a coalition or group, they would have potentially assumed the role of the opposition in the national parliament.

The subpar performance of the Jatiya Party in the election prompts curiosity about the reasons behind its underwhelming performance, with a prominent factor being the internal divisions within the party's central leadership.

Internal divisions within the party have led to a schism, with one faction supporting GM Quader and another endorsing Begum Rowshan Ershad. This discordant leadership dynamic has left the party susceptible, as evidenced by the outcomes of the recent election. Rather than proactively strengthening its organizational capacity, the party leadership has historically sought advantages from the ruling party.

A pivotal moment arose when the party negotiated with the ruling party to contest in 26 constituencies without anticipating the simultaneous participation of independent candidates backed by the ruling party. The Jatiya Party candidates struggled to secure victories in the election, highlighting a substantial erosion of the party's support base.

Undoubtedly, the absence of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) provided a strategic advantage to the ruling party, as they faced minimal risks. Given the global community's persistent scrutiny of Bangladesh's elections, this commitment to a free and fair election was imperative to garner international recognition. 

While the ruling party has achieved significant success in the election, the concurrent weakening of opposition political parties is a concerning development for democracy. It is important to note that the ruling party alone cannot be entirely blamed for this outcome. The continuous election boycotts by the BNP and internal divisions within the Jatiya Party have contributed to their diminished influence in the political arena. The future will reveal the course of revival for the country's opposition political parties. 

Dr Pranab Kumar Panday is a Professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Rajshahi.

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